The State of the Union

A friend sent this piece to me today via email. I do not know this author but I suppose that it has been published. We are posting it here for our readers. RR

Nadia Rahman Khan

My impending departure from Pakistan, coupled with the nation’s 62nd
independence anniversary is making me feel like a deserter. The past year I
spent in my country brought upon me the most fragmented states of mind. It
constantly felt like an acid trip that had gone on too long; or a badly
scripted film with far too many anti-climaxes. In a severe paradigm shift
from when I was studying abroad, I’ve spent the year desperately wishing I
could leave the country I didn’t recognize as mine anymore.

I came back to Pakistan with a starry optimism to finally be involved in the
polities of my country, as opposed to watching the action- so to speak, from
the bleachers. It hadn’t been a Knicks game. Nor did my cheering, or
hooting, or disapproving from the sidelines help shape, in any way, the
course of events in the past few years. I felt like a member of the chorus,
watching a Greek play unfold, and narrating its tragic events to the
audience; in this case, my English and Welsh friends who couldn’t relate.
That’s the second thing that I was looking forward to coming back to:
familiarity with those around me of things happening around us. There was
only so much my hippie friends studying English literature and enacting
plays about Alice’s discovery of her secret and carnal desires during her
adventures underground, could understand about the Lal Masjid scenario. I
needed to be home, and around people who were living in this banana
republic, and facing the issues our government was forcing them to confront.

What I didn’t know was that my homecoming would function as the prologue to
severe nationalistic angst. Since last September, I’ve watched my beloved
Islamabad change from the suburban, laid-back Capital it used to be to a
heavily guarded, regulated Camelot-like (less glamorous though, and the
‘Piplias’ are no honorable knights of the round table) city with internal
fortresses. All embassies, and UN buildings have massive concrete blocks in
front of them- smack in the middle of the city; serving more as eye-sore
against the backdrop of the glorious Margalla Hills – It’s disgusting- as
are the security check-points on every single street, road, and
intersection. And dangerous, too; imagine: you’ve memorized out of habit,
every slight dip and low of Margallah road; you can drive from one end to
the other with your eyes closed, only, now- after every few kilometers,
there are blockades, and traffic flowing every which way, on a one way road.
As if we didn’t have enough bad drivers in the country already that we now
need to test their driving ability with real-life security hazards, which
function more against their physical well-being than protect them from any
terror threat. By now, I should be an ace driver, capable of expertly
avoiding the new low, yellow and black striped cement blocks which crop up
after every twenty-odd feet. Sadly, I’m not. And like several others I know,
I’ve rammed my car into far too many of these road blocks put up for my own
security. Legal action for damage to property caused by the Islamabad
traffic police, anyone? I don’t think so.

Fear and Loathing, minus the bats, in Islamabad. Fear, because all of a
sudden, Islamabad isn’t the safe, diplomatic, bureaucratic neighborhood it
once used to be. It is a city where now, every other car has a bunch of
fairly dangerous looking passengers. Not that I’m saying they’re all
representatives of extremist Islamic elements. But that this is something
you didn’t see before. You saw froebelian boys in their uniforms bunking
school and heading to Rana Market for some samosas on foot, but never hordes
of bearded men in shalwar kameez walking the streets of my city, like they
own it. Islamabad is now also a city where my colleague and I, on one of our
trips to Adiala jail, were accosted by about 15 Burqa-clad women who
threatened to beat my counter-part (who was dressed in a shalwar kameez,
with her dupatta on her shoulder as opposed to her head) till all Indian
notions of dress were taken out of her, and she learned to cover her head.
Ironic, because these were all women who were visiting their sons or
husbands on death row, which inevitably meant that their relatives had done
something far worse than my colleague had by not covering her head. And
loathing; loathing because Islamabad never used to be like this, and I hate
what it’s become. And because it scares me to think what’s next.

Pakistan is also a country which is currently led by what Fatima Bhutto in
one of her writings, describes, and quite aptly too- as ‘the thievery
corporation’. Richest man in Babylon substituted for Mr. 10% in Pakistan. In
a cringe-worthy Independence Day celebration at the Presidency on the night
of 13th August, we saw the President of our corporation—no, country, bearing
a heart-shaped green and white badge positioned on his own black heart- umm
sorry; I meant sherwani. He stood there flanked by his son and daughter,
waving a Pakistani flag. This was our President’s way of reminding us
onlookers who, or what political dynasty, his presence in the presidential
seat represents. Another one of his reminders is far more nausea inducing:
Instead of putting up national flags furthering the patriotic sentiment in
Pakistanis, my capital city of Islamabad has a sky that cant be seen as it’s
blocked by PPP flags; a fluttering representation of a mockery of a
government.

Barring unconditional love for what is one’s own, over the course of the
past year, I began viewing Pakistan as a country which has far too much
wrong with it. It’s a country which has over 7000 prisoners on the Pakistani
death row; and the crimes for which this noxious penalty can be afforded- a
whopping 27 in number. They range from murder and rape on one end of the
spectrum, to the most recent, i.e. cyber crimes on the other end. Truly
ridiculous in the face of international law which heavily propagates the
abolition of the death penalty or insists that its existence should only be
limited to the ‘most severe crimes’.

Through the course of my work, I’ve come to view Pakistan as a country where
justice can do extraordinary things, such as when two innocent British
Nationals of Pakistani origin came to Pakistan for summer break to visit
family, they were picked up by the local police, tossed into a holding cell
in a police station, and thrashed senselessly till they admitted to a crime
they didn’t commit. This is what happened with Naheem and Rehan, two young
boys who were both tortured for 15-18 days in Dadyal police station, after
which they were threatened of further physical violence unless they signed a
piece of paper. Neither of the two could read Urdu, and so had no idea that
what they were signing to was a confession of committing two murders;
murders, for which they are awaiting trial five years on from the date of
their arrest. Naheem and Rehan, like the other over 7000 prisoners on the
Pakistani death row, deserve a fair and immediate trial. But one look at
their court records tells you that they’re getting anything but that. Its
one delay after another, one adjournment after the next. The prisoner, after
weeks of anticipation, walks into court, only to be looked at by the judge
and told, before he can even have a seat, that his hearing won’t take place
that week because of one rubbish reason or the other. If it isn’t the
lawyer’s mother falling sick, then it’s the judge who can’t appear because
he has a stomach ache. It’s heart-wrenching and so, so frustrating for me to
be hearing this from the prisoners, or on reading it from their court
records; imagine what it must be like for them living this torment week in
and week out.

It isn’t just Naheem and Rehan. There are- as I said, thousands of
prisoners, many of them innocent, languishing in prisons around the country
for crimes a lot of them did not commit. Or crimes they committed, but only
if they had proper legal representation, they would have defended.

Like Dr. Zufiqar Ali Khan. This is a man who, since his incarceration eleven
years ago for a crime he committed in self defense, has successfully
completed 33 Diplomas, Certificates and Degrees. He has also educated
hundreds of prisoners. From these hundreds, he tutored 12 of his students in
jail to earn a graduation degree, 23 to pass their F.A. exams, and 18 to
complete their matriculation. If this man pleads the President of his
country, in his open letter to him published in The News on the 1st of April
2009, to invoke the power given to him under article 45 of the Constitution
and change his death sentence to one of life imprisonment so he can devote
his life to educating other prisoners, one can only wonder why the President
wouldn’t comply.

While I was assisting Dr. Zulfiqar’s brilliant lawyer in her attempt to
grant him redemption from his then impending date of execution, we went to
meet a top government official in his office; an office which served better
purpose as a photographic gallery for the martyred Benazir Bhutto and her
husband’s framed portraits. We were treated exceptionally well by this
gentleman who, looked at us- two lawyers, with fatherly concern and blasted
the lawyer’s movement. He also told us to stop the work we’re doing and
become journalists instead (now you see where the inspiration for this piece
is coming from). In relation to our case, we were told that our only hope of
keeping Dr Zulfiqar, our client, alive, was to pray that Asif Ali Zardari
stays in power. Because till the time he does, he will not allow any
executions to take place. Sure. I believe you. Firstly, there have been
executions since he’s come into power- four of them, actually, as recorded
by the Asian Human Rights Commission. Secondly, if President Zardari wishes
to stay true to the spirit of the Pakistan People’s Party, he should, as
both- Zulifqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto did upon coming to power,
commute all death sentences to life sentences. If President Zardari is
attempting to continue Benazir and her father’s legacy, then why not follow
their legacy here too, instead of hiding behind the suo moto action against
the death penalty which may or may not work in the Supreme Court? I don’t
get it.

I kept hoping that this independence day, through some miracle, the
President would announce a commutation, granting liberation from the gallows
to these prisoners. But he didn’t. Instead, he had photographs of himself
taken and published while puckering up to kiss the cheeks of an internally
displaced orphan; a child who looked repulsed by the Presidential
moustache’s intimate plunge.

It scares me to think that this is my country. A Taliban infested, drone
attacked, load shedding, bomb exploding, corruption ridden conundrum. And as
the war in the north rages on, the Taliban continue to gain entry-points
into other parts of Pakistan, whether by posing as IDPs, or by gaining
support from a public jilted by the government. This is indeed, my country,
where politicians are either defamed by CCTV tapes played back on national
television of them committing credit card frauds, or by videos being
released of them scratching their privates during the course of important
discussions on live TV. It can only be Pakistan where the nation has to
suffer 12 hours a day without electricity, and where an innocent 10 year old
boy lost his right hand due to operating heavy machinery at work while the
electricity suddenly went out, chopping his hand off, in the process.

What a travesty.

But then I drive past a check-post, a road block and the architectural
nightmare that the UNICEF building in Islamabad is now, and I see Pakistani
flags being sold on the streets, given that this is the month my country
gained independence in- so optimistically, 62 years ago. And I see the
relentless ambition in the people of this country, as despite all, they
still don their green t-shirts on our independence day, and venture out
shouting slogans with full faith and fervor, and help cause severe traffic
jams, making any ambulance’s journey with a dying patient to the hospital
next to impossible. The warm fuzzy feeling within is given birth.

And I see my packed suitcase, awaiting the flight out of here, and towards a
post-graduate qualification which was once meant to be geared towards
helping out the poor and the needy upon my return to Pakistan. But which-
within the past year, came to be seen by me as just an escape route out of
this country where I experienced more than a life’s share of explosions and
power outages. And I can’t help but feel, as a said, like a deserter. And
its this very feeling of running away from what was described, perhaps a
little too pessimistically as a ‘failing state’- which gives birth to a
belief, which I cant help but pray is a redundant one- but I know it isn’t-
that I need this country far more than it needs me. And I know that
regardless of its failings, Pakistan is all I’ve known. And being Pakistani
is all I can be. Regardless of any attempt at discipline, I will still skip
queues, criticize the leadership, harbor an inherent skepticism towards
Indians, revere the scenic Northern Areas of Pakistan, hold relentless
expectations from the Pakistani cricket team, embrace the enormous Pakistani
talent of hospitality, still be blindly trusting of people and governments,
and find refuge in Islamabadi sunsets, long drives on Margalla Road,
Roll-parathas, and Coke Studio.

Being Muslim doesn’t bind us anymore, given the divides, divisions, and
elements; but being Pakistani does. That’s all that’s familiar. Islamabad
with its two way traffic on one way streets, and police on every corner
peering into every car that drives past, is home.

That’s when the patriotic trip kicks in. It’s a downer.

2 Comments

Filed under Pakistan

2 responses to “The State of the Union

  1. Puzzled

    Hmm…what sorry tale of someone endeavouring to call home, ‘home’.

    I have no clue whatsoever, whether or not the dream of a Paki living in Pakistan will ever come true. It is kind of chicken and an egg situation. Should Pakis move to Pakistan, try and change it, or wait for Pakistan to change itself then come and help it flourish. I am puzzled!

    I guess we are human beings after all. Insecure species constantly and simultaneously buffeted by both emotional and logical backlashes. I could never answer the questions, how did we grow so different? Why can’t we unlearn what we have learnt? Why can’t we make things that defy us, invisible? Why have the very people, my forefathers once fought, have embraced me? Why have I ‘evolved’ so much that my own instincts are now primitive.

    I share this dream! I cannot open my eyes lest it becomes reality and I have to live it!

    chohdrysandhu@gmail.com

  2. Anonymous

    The entire point of your article was kind of obscured, for me, by your repetitive and frankly, unnecessary, jabs at the government. Zardari was democratically elected into power by the vast majority of this nation, and he has worked himself into the ground keeping Pakistan going. How can you turn your back on how he’s been working for our international image, working to garner us financial aid that will help our economy survive this slump, dealing with internal disrest, and fighting back terrorism all at the same time, and simply accuse him of having a ‘black heart’? You need to be alot fairer and more objective in your opinions; and alot more accepting of his accomplishments in this incredibly troubled time. Maybe part of the changes in the nation are the people’s complete apathy, ingratitude and thanklessness.